Movies Worth Seeing: Pinball, The Man Who Saved The Game (2022)

Granted, the subject matter of this movie is enough to rope me in immediately since I love old pinball machines, but even if you’re unfamiliar with the history, lore & mystique surrounding pinball machines, this film works wonderfully as a low-key optimistic movie about people making positive choices for themselves.

Yes, filmmaker brothers Austin & Meredith Bragg have taken the historic footnote story of how GQ writer Roger Sharpe helped to end the ban on pinball machines in NYC back in the 1970s and have turned it into a very entertaining tale structured as a documentary, although even that part is fictional.

Similar to American Spendor, we have a current-day Roger Sharpe talking to an off-camera director or directly to us during the narrative following the younger Roger (a wonderful Mike Faist) as he journeys from falling in love with pinball in college to a journalism career in NYC and a romance with young single mom Ellen (Crystal Reed). But unlike American Splendor which intercut the real Harvey Pekar into the Paul Giamatti version, our current day Sharpe is played by Dennis Boutsikaris, made up to appear as a dead ringer for the real Sharpe, if you care.

And it works – Boutskaris’ narration as well as his faux arguments with the director over which direction the film is heading works well comically as well as keeps a sense of the historic context of what wer’re watching. And first time fearure makers the Braggs have a fantastic visual sense – the set designs, color palette, wardrobe and especially Faist’s monster mustache give us the best visual reproducton of the mid-70s since probably Dazed & Confused. Small character roles like his fellow GQ staffers or the pinball company execs are cast perfectly with character actor who look the part – the attention to detail is mpeccable, as well as the choices made both in structuring the script and in the dialogue.

Faist & Reed also have wonderful onscreen chemistry. Faist can pull off the poignant moments as well as the comic ones, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s a lauded stage actor when you see how well he uses his gangly body to melt into his character. This guy ought to be going onto a great acting career. His romance with Reed is cute but not saccharine, and plays into part of Sharpe’s defense of pinball to the NYC council as a game of skill and not a game of chance, which is why LaGuardia had outlawed pinball decades earlier as a gambling device.

You choose what to aim at and shoot for during a pinball game – what targets? What bonus? How will you get to the free game, or extra ball, or can you turn the machine over? With flipper skill, you can carom the ball, cradle it to perfect a shot… and like Sharpe did in his demonstration for the city council, nail a plunger shot just so in order to complete a set of targets. Sharpe applies it to life choices – the ball is always going to drain, so pick your best shot.

Sharpe went from GQ writer to pinball designer and consultant, as well as marriage with Ellen and more kids. The film depicts how the publishers gutted a lot of the history & interviews with pinball company magnates out of his 1977 coffee table book. Not sure if it ever got into a later editon, but since I own a copy of Harry McKeown’s Pinball Portfolio book from 1976, there are a lot of other books on the subject out there.

And like I said, I love old pinball machines, several of which are shown in the movie, either played or just in the background. Nerdy Jim recognized a lot of ’em, like Williams “Big Ben,” a favorite of mine back at the old Midland Mall arcade “Aladdin’s Castle” in the Rhode Island of 1976. I got a Gottlieb “Ice Revue” (1965) as a bar-mitzvah present, at a price of $150 from a vending machine seller up on Federal Hill. (Clearly no mob involvement at all. None!). It got sold when my parents sold the house and I moved across the country. Alas, I no longer have it. Recently I saw “Ice Revue” beautifully restored at a game/pool table store and the dude wanted $4500 for it. For Sharpe, the Holy Grail machine was Gottlieb’s “Cow Poke” from the same era, a machine featuring wonderful animated backglass props of a mule kicking someone. The older machines with the mechanical score reels, with the analog circuits and relays, with actual bells for sounds – are preferable to the 1980s and on electronic games with the LED scoreboards. But the playfield design and backglass art remains a wonderful time capsule of pop culture. For some guys, it’s the love of changing car designs. I prefer pinball games, I guess.

While Sharpe has a basement filled with a bunch of actual old machines, I’ll probably take the cheaper route of a virtual pinball table loaded with classic games at some point when I feel like blowing several thousand dollars on myself. That way I’ll get Ice Revue back – along with Cow Poke, Big Ben, Fireball, Kings & Queens, Eight Ball Deluxe…and anything else I can load into it.

That is, before my ball drains. Thank you and try the veal.

Two TV Shows & A Movie: Reviews

It’s been a while since I felt like there was anything worth writing about to put on here, but here I am again with some recommendations of stuff to watch.

Been spending a lot of time on domestic issues – home improvement, and acclimating my new cat (yay! kitty!) to his new surroundings, although the little bastard has pretty much acted like he owns this place since he arrived. He personifies (or cat-ifies?) the eternal riddle of cat brain: smart enough to figure out how to open every closet door in the house by jumping up and pulling the door handles, but not smart enough to figure out what glass is and how it keeps him from eating the lizards outside. When he wakes me out of bed in the wee hours with his paw banging on the windows, I’ve tried calling him a shit for brains dumbass to shame him into learning, but it’s not working. Wondering if he’s thinking I’m the shit for brains dumbass for getting out of bed whenever he does this, but I guess I’m too big a shit for brains dumbass to figure that out. If he figures out how to reprogram the autofeeder and spells out “Fuck the system” with his dry food along the floor, I’m calling the exorcist.

Ah, but your lovable king of leisure time has some streaming recommenations for ya.

First up is a spankin’ new documentary that came out a couple of weeks ago but somehow is already available free via Hoopla, The Mojo Manifesto (2023), a very entertaining straightforward documentary on the career of Mojo Nixon. I’m sure y’all remember Mojo’s biggest radio hit “Elvis Is Everywhere,” and this doc covers his entire career interspliced with clips from a present day interview showing that the older, grayer and heavier Mojo is still exactly the same loud mouth obscene hilarious guy he’s always been. The film begins in the middle of the story – after Mojo split from his longtime music partner Skid Roper. Their falling out must still sting since Skid refused to take part in this documentary, but it seems like everyone else Mojo has ever worked with eagerly takes part & still works with the guy. He’s had the same manager forever & has been married for over thirty years – and maybe it’s my own prejudice but whenever a music/movie celeb has a track record like that and is as brutally honest-not-give-a-shit the way Mojo is, I gotta think the problem here is with Skid. Anyway – lots of fun clips here and snippets of Mojo’s music – my only beef with this film was that no complete song is ever featured or spotlit, but I guess that’s what digging out the old record collection or youtube is for. Watching this brought back some nice memories of seeing Mojo & Skid live back in the late ’80s, a very funny show and also a revelation that those guys are actually pretty adept musicians. One of my favorite Mojo stories is included only over the end credits, however: after putting out the song “Don Henley Must Die,” Henley turned up at one of Mojo’s concerts. And to his everlasting credit, Henley got up on stage surprising Mojo and singing the song with him. Only Morrissey doing that to Mojo’s rockabilly cover of “Girlfriend in a Coma” might top that, I guess.

Currently running on AMC is Lucky Hank, an 8 episode adaptation of the novel “Straight Man” by Richard Russo staring Bob Oedenkirk as English prof Hank Devereaux Jr, an academic shlub at a small mediocrity (his own words) of a college, dealing with the various struggles in his life – mostly in his long-absent father retiring from the fame and success of Columbia and NYC to move to the same small town. This plays out a lot like Alexander Payne Lite, in that it focuses mostly on people who are mired in failure, but once I got past the first episode, which I thought magnified the cringe factor a bit too much, the show has gotten better. The supporting characters of other professors and students and family members have been developed more, and while the tone has been maintained, a major difference between this show and the kind of material Payne lives in (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, etc.) is that the show likes the characters and adds a humane touch. In episode 1 I thought this show would go in the Payne-like direction of making the entire show about the moral failing & weakness of the characters, which is always the prevailing theme in his films. He’s one of the only directors who hates people who makes movies I like, by the way. Oedenkirk is good here, especially in his darkly sarcastic one-liner replies to the characters around him when he’s the only one in the room acknowledging reality. The storyline, true to the novel, unfolds slowly – the pressures of both Hank’s job and his wife’s assistant principal job are handled adeptly, and the open and honest nature of their marital discussions is very refreshing TV. Hank’s family story with his parents lies at the center, so no spoilers here. Different academic “types” are satirized a lot, as well as the sorts of petty faculty rivalries and fights over nothing that I know about all too well after my decades in that venue. Maybe that’s why I like this show. Making fun of academia in the small-failure setting is a genre that turns up a lot in novels since they’re all written by English profs who take the teaching jobs since their novels might get critical wows or log rolling but don’t make a lot of money (ahem. Go up to “Buy My Books” and hit those amazon links, ya plebes). Russo has had commercial success with a lot of his work however, but clearly understands the world he’s writing about. While the novel came out in the 1990s and the campus has changed a lot (and for the worse) since, not a whole lot needed to be updated here.

For Jimmy The Foodieâ„¢, I got a rec to check out The Bear, an eight episode first series of a dark dramedy due for a second season of ten episodes this coming June. Jeremy Allen White stars as Carmy, a chef from the French Laundry world of snob cuisine who returns to run his families’ old beef sammich shop in Chicago after his brother commits suicide. This was another show that took me a few episodes to get into – the opener felt like people yelling at each other in a chaotic atmosphere for a solid thirty minutes and not much else – but as later episodes go on, the supporting characters of the restaurant staff and the backstory of the family, of him, and of all sorts of stuff with the supporting characters are drawn out very well and it becomes very engrossing. I’m not sure why this show is considered a comedy by all the awards categories in Hollywood – there are funny moments and lines, but the situations themselves are very real and it feels way more like a character drama. It’s very well done – acting, directing and story structuring within episodes and with the overall season arc are solid. There’s a lot of cooking/food stuff in here as well, especially with Carmy’s new sous chef hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and his ambitious baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce). Ebon Moss-Bachrach is also wonderful at making his cousin Richie character into an annoying asshole but who you feel sympathy for.

Wait, did I tell you to buy my books? I got a cat to feed, y’know.

Some Pork Recipes

For the last few months, those weekly supermarket flyers have been bereft of chicken on sale, to say the least. At first I thought it was because I’d moved to a different part of the country, but no – turns out that the non-surplus of chicken is a national thing and has been for some time. Part supply chain crapola, part bird flu – those regular rotating sales of chicken parts for one or two bucks a pound are now a fond memory.

And what DOES turn up on sale repeatedly in those flyers? Pork.

I’ve never really cooked a lot with pork. No special reason, really, I don’t keep kosher (and all the shellfish recipes on this blog are a reminder of that), but I never had a lot of experience cooking with pork. But as much as I find pigs adorable and feel bad for ’em, they are certainly delicious. So I started out basically substituting pork for chicken in some recipes, and altering the spices in some others, and came up with the following dishes that work pretty well & appeal to my CHEAPNESS whenever I probe those weekly specials.

Substituting boneless pork tenderloin for boneless chicken was the simplest switch, although you have to treat the pork more like chicken breast than chicken thigh or leg meat. It’ll cook quicker and dry out on you if you’re not careful. All of the following recipes come from using those shrinkwrapped boneless pork loins that come in three to five pound logs, except for the last one which uses boneless pork shoulder.

First order of business for me is to cut the log into portion sections of 3/4 to a pound apiece. Trim the fat, and they’re ready to use or freeze easily.

Pork parmigiana – Easiest substitution EVAH – take one of those portions, cut lengthwise into two even chops and then pound them to about 1/4 inch thick. Then they got parmagianed the same as anything else: salt/pepper ’em, dust with flour, egg wash, coated with seasoned breadcrumbs, basil & some grated Parmesan/Romano cheese. Pan fried in olive oil until about 75-80% done, then topped with mozzarella & a couple of spoonfuls of marinara and into a 350 oven for 10 minutes. That’s it. Put the sauce on top of the cheese – that way the cutlets will retain their crispness & you’ll still get the cheese/sauce/crisp coating/porn flavor.

Another simply substitution was to cut a portion into 1/2 inch slices and substitute it for chicken in an easy spicy Chinese pork stir fry. Marinate in a tsp of soy, tsp of sherry & tsp of cornstarch. Sauce: 4 tsp soy, 2 tsp rice vinegar, 1-2 tsp hot pepper paste, 1 tsp cornstarch and 1 tbs honey. Stir fry the porn with a tsp of chopped garlic and a tsp of chopped ginger, add whatever vegetables you want, then add the sauce. Give it a hit of toasted sesame oil off heat. Done.

An easy pork noodle dish: cut up the pork into 1/4 inch pieces, and marinate it 2 tsp soy, 1 tsp cornstarch, 1 tbs sherry and 1/4-1/2 tsp white pepper. Precook and undercook some spaghetti – for 10 minute spaghetti, I’ll drain it after 6 minutes and put aside. Stir fry 2-3 chopped garlic cloves and red pepper to taste, then add the pork and cook until browned. Add vegetables after – some shredded carrot, small broccoli pieces, pea pods, sprouts -whatever. Then add 3 tbs soy, 1/2 tsp brown sugar (or 1 tsp honey) and 3/4 cup of water or better – use chicken broth. Put the noodles on top of this mixture and cover for 5 minutes over low-medium. Then stir and toss until all the liquid is absorbed by the now finished noodles. You can also add 1 tbs oyster sauce to this with nice results.

Easy BBQ pork chops – I cut a portion lengthwise into what becomes a pair of boneless pork chops. Into my cast iron skillet with a homemade bbq sauce of 3/4 cup ketchup, 1/3 cup water, 2 tbs balsamic vinegar, 1 tbs worcestershire, 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp chili powder, 1/2 white pepper and 1 tbs honey. Just pour the sauce over the pork. Into a 375 oven. In 15 minutes, flip the chops and recoat with he sauce in the pan, then back in for another 15 minutes. That’s it.

For pork stew, I’ll use the boneless pork shoulder and cube it up the same as I would a beef chuck roast. I like using a slow cooker for stews. I’ll season the cut up pork with salt, white pepper, paprika and garlic powder, then brown with some olive oil before adding some chopped garlic and two tbs of tomato paste. Cook that through to toast the paste enough, and into a slow cooker with an onion chopped into chunks, some chunked carrot, a can of chicken broth, a can of chopped tomato, a few sprigs of rosemary and EITHER enough of a good beer to cover OR a good red wine. Add a teaspoon of salt for the tomatoes, and a few bay leaves. Slow cook on high for 2-3 hours, and then add a cubed sweet potato before finishing on low for another hour. Remove bay leaves and rosemary sprigs. Season to taste. Add other herbs if you want. See if I care.

Are those enough pork recipes from this Jew? Oy vey, I hope so. I’d always been led to believe that pork was not good for you due to the fat content, but if you trim the fat, the meat itself is very lean. And lard is not as unhealthy a fat as people think, compared to some of the other stuff out there.

And pigs are still cute and smarter than cats or dogs, and I feel kinda bad whenever I eat them. But they are delicious.

A House Full Of Books = Tsundoku

When I moved across the country recently, the final tally of books was 43 boxes worth. And that was after giving away the equivalent of about a dozen more boxes’ worth to friends and colleagues.

People who come to my house often browse through the numerous bookcases and inevitably ask me “Have you read all these?” and the answer is “I think I’ve read close to half of them, the other half are in the queue.” Every so often I’d go through an inventory of sorts of what I’ve read, what I haven’t, what I’ll read again or what I’ll always want to keep around. And then the straining task of culling what I have to admit to myself that I will never read – something I’ll do every year or so – and then boxing it up to pass along to some other book hunter by donating to the thrift store or library.

And why the thinning of the book collection? Why, to make room for MORE books gathered at those very same library sales, thrift stores, or the occasional yard sale. There’s a library sale this Saturday I’m planning on as I write this.

I came across this article today about the value of having a house filled with to-be-read books and it certainly spoke to my existence. The central idea is that all the unread books are constant reminders of everything we do not know but can learn in our eternal quest for knowledge, and I like that. The Japanese term for it is “tsondoku.” The books make us smart and keep us humble all at the same time, perfect for Yom Kippur I guess, which begins tonight. So nice timing on that article,!

The 2022 Yankee Season

Watching this team since July has been like watching a multicar accident in slow motion, with all the cars filled with kittens.

This team SUCKS.

There’s no other way to put it. They are well on their way to a historic collapse on the level of the ’64 Phillies, ’78 Red Sox & ’07 Mets. Everything went their way during the first half while they mostly bet up on weaker teams, and in the second half their bats (except for Judge) have gone dead & the pitching staff, ONCE AGAIN, is racked by injuries due to a training/conditioning staff that inexplicably never gets fired despite multiple injuries EVERY. YEAR.

This article sums up the problems & needed solutions nicely. And after reading it, I feel pretty confident that the only thing on this guy’s list that might happen is #3 “The Kids Must Contribute.” Maybe the Oswald-Oswaldo twins and Florial will step up, but it’s a big if. The article points out how Judge has been a “one-man army” for the Yankees. He’s flirting with breaking the Maris home run mark, which in my eyes makes him the single-season record holder since he’d be the only player to pass Maris without using PEDs of some sort. But it’s an empty thing, akin to Mike Trout or Ohtani piling up amazing individual stats while their team sits in the basement. Judge has been the only fun thing for me to watch this year, but anytime I hear he’s hit another homer, I don’t have to look at the line score to know it was a solo shot. No one else is getting on base, and when they do, there’s always someone in a slump ready in whatever random position in the line-up Boone or his math masters have programmed to step up and hit into a rally-killing double play.

It was fun for me in 1978 to be on the other end of this, watching the Yankees climb back from a 14 1/2 game deficit and win it all. I got to attend this beaut at Fenway about this time that year, Guidry’s 2 hit shutout & a very bad inning for Eckersley which brought the Yanks within 1 game. All 7 runs scored without a single home run. That’s what’s known as a hitting rally, where lots of guys in the lineup all get base hits, not just homers or strikeouts. If the defense tried some lopsided shift, they’d hit away from it or lay down a bunt for an easy cheap single, and that defensive strategy would be abandoned, go figure. Current hitting coaches might want to study up on it.

They’d beat the Sox the next day to tie the division. 14 1/2 game deficit erased.

It’s only a matter of time before the Rays do the same thing to this year’s Yankees, only they won’t be playing them at the time. Some other AL squad will help them out, it’s only a matter of who.

The Yankees built up enough of a lead to probably wind up in the wild card, but they have one-and-done written all over them.

And then what?

Fire Boone? Sure, why not. Then fill the spot with another middle-management cipher to carry out whatever the analytics say.

It’ll take more than that. Fire the hitting coach & hire Rod Carew or someone who thinks like him. Contact hitting, spray hitting, no more “launch angle” and “hit velocity” bullshit. Get guys on the bases, distract the pitchers & get them home. Bring in a manager who’d be a fiery clubhouse leader, command actual decision making authority & not take crap from anyone. Even though he seems to be loving retirement, I’d love to see CC Sabathia give that a shot.

Can we fire Cashman & Steinbrenner too? Can we bring back Gene Michael and Bob Watson who built the 90s dynasty when they had a free hand?

Can I win the powerball right after my torrid love affair with the sudden incarnation of 25 year old Ava Gardner who just showed up at my door with a bottle of bourbon & two glasses?

Probably not. I won’t get ANY of those things. And Ava’s gotten a little surly after that bourbon and threw the empty bottle at me. I think she’s going back to Frank.

Nothing to look forward to in the remaining games.

Oh WAIT – football is back!

Oh WAIT – Nothing to look forward to with the Patriots this year either. At least I expect them to suck, especially after watching them in pre-season. I guess I’ll enjoy Tom Brady’s last hurrah, although he’ll probably play until he’s in his 70s.

Gotta get another cat. They never disappoint you.

Always Judge A Book By Its Cover

I made a new cover for the first entry in my Professor Wagstaff mystery series. I got sick of the old one, it seemed a bit too generic. Not that I’m some sort of genius in graphic design by any means, but not too bad for a concoction of royalty-free images, eh?

You realize that this makes all copies with the original cover WORTH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

Click on the “Books I’ve Written” tab up top for more. I need the money.

Movies Worth Seeing: The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (2022)

One of the stranger, stupider and very enjoyable movies of late is this odd homage to the persona/brand that is Nicolas Cage. Similar to how William Shatner has parlayed self-parody into iconic form, Cage plays “himself” in this action comedy send-up of the sorts of formula plots found in many of Cage’s earlier films.

The plot involves Cage taking a trip to Spain to meet the mysterious billionaire Javi Gutierrez (a wonderful scene stealing Pedro Pascal), who turns out to be Cage’s ultimate fanboy, wanting to make a film with him. Meanwhile, Cage is recruited by the CIA to take down Gutierrez, who actually fronts an international arms dealing crime family who kidnapped an innocent girl and…. I know, I know… you gotta be kidding me. But the whole thing is played for some good laughs, and the satire of Cage’s creative process as he works with and ultimately bonds with Javi as they meta-discuss developing a character driven movie where two men come together to save those close to them…

Well, while evoking much of one of Cage’s best films “Adaptation” without ever directly mentioning it, “Unbearable Weight…” does a lot of the same circular referencing type of stuff, throwing in material from many of Cage’s popcorn action films like Con-Air, The Rock, Gone In 60 Seconds, etc. The most direct parallel to Adaptation is how Cage occasionally argues with his younger self, a mostly cheerleading Raising Arizona-era version of Cage created via the magic of CGI. Adaptation satirized Hollywood formula more effectively and more explicitly than this, but Unbearable… does a wonderful job of keeping things moving along, is very well directed, and has a supporting cast strong enough to keep everything together in what amounts to a two hour version of how Vincent Price actually becomes the movie heroes his ham-actor character plays at the end of “His Kind of Woman.”

Evidently writer/director Tom Gormican got turned down multiple times by Cage in pitching this film, but a personal letter somehow changed Cage’s mind. And unsurprisingly, Cage co-produced it in the end.

If you’re a fan of the Nic Cage As Everyone idea, this is the movie for you.

A Big Book Roundup Finale: Arts & History Edition

The last of the book recommendations/reviews gathers up a bunch of material I’ve read over the last few months here and there, dealing with arts, literature or straight-up history.

Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus & The Cross -The Story of the Pope Who Brought The Light Of Science To The Dark Ages examines the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert, as a peasant monk, traveled to Muslim Spain in the mid 900s, got exposed to all the ancient knowledge compiled by the Abbasids and others, returned to France to start a school in Reims where he taught all the ancient Greco-Roman classical knowledge he’d learned in astronomy, math and the like (he may have also built astrolabes) and eventually through a myriad journey through the Medieval politics of the day mostly involving the inner workings of the Holy Roman Empire and the Capetian Dynasty of France, became Pope for a brief period. Brown puts forth an interesting thesis on how if Sylvester II and young Otto III of the HRE had lived longer, the schism of the eastern and western churches in 1054 could have been avoided, thereby changing all of European and Middle Eastern history, etc etc. It’s an interesting theory that’s tough to defend but her scholarship on the life of this dude is a fascinating dive into the way the Medieval European world worked, both in terms of the state of education and culture, as well as the politics.

Mark Lamster’s Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the painter Peter Paul Reubens follows similar lines of mixing a cultural examination of its subject (it’s a great straight-up bio of Reubens, discussing his art, the major works, and his great commercial and business success) with another dive into the politics of its era. This time it’s the Wars of Dutch Independence, and the Flemish Reubens serves as the perfect go-between to sneak messages and information between both the Spanish/Hapsburg and Netherlandish sides. They both like him, trust him… and while important powerful people & royalty pose for him, they chat in ways knowing he can pass the messages along. Not sure if he hid any coded messages in the cellulite of the female nudes he pained, but I guess we’d be getting into Da Vinci code territory going down that road.

Thomas Cahill’s Heretics & Heroes: How Renaissance Artists & Reformation Priests Created Our World is another entry in Cahill’s highly readable Hinges of History series. Cahill writes in a relaxed, breezy style, discussing the various figures he puts in the center of the catalyst-actions he sees moving civilization along. Cahill is not hiding that it’s all his opinion when he writes about Vermeer or Luther or Savonarola or anyone, really… so after a while the book becomes akin to listening to a really smart guy just talk about this stuff in a free wheeling manner. I recommend the other entries in this series as well.

Finally, a pair of similar books that are basically entertaining personal polemics, where each author cathartically releases whatever vitriol they have on assorted subjects in art and literature. Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art catalogues academic works by various professors on specific paintings that are radical way-out-there interpretations of the works in question, offering Kimball some truly low-hanging fruit to pick apart. Kimball sticks to articles by various art professors where a predetermined political ideological agenda gets put in place first, and then whatever analysis of the work can be hammered into that structure happens, regardless of any other interpretations or sometimes obvious meanings found in the works. While the book focuses on art, the same argument against the sort of garbage that turns up in far too many humanities research could be applied to numerous other areas. It kept reminding me of my own personal episode with the sort of polemicist crap Kimball rails against, back in an undergrad film class listening to the stupidest analysis of Hitchcock’s Rear Window by a semiotician overly determined to cram as much Freudian symbolism and deconstructionist twaddle into an analysis that purported to argue that Hitchcock intended for it all. I ranted about it then and, probably similar to Kimball’s experience in writing this book, enjoyed a very cathartic exercise of reproducing said rant many years later in my Wagstaff & Meatballs novel, much of which I set at a Brown U reunion.

If you want the English literature version of the Kimball approach, albeit with MUCH more straight out analysis of some great books ranging from Beowulf to Jane Austen, I listened to The Politically Incorrect Guide To English & American Literature by Elizabeth Kantor (audiobook). Good GOD does she hate Margaret Atwood & Handmaid’s Tale, and good GOD does she hate the way that book has supplanted, in her eyes, the greater books by greater authors in the canon, all for pushing the sort of political agenda Kimball also rails against. Handmaid’s Tale turns up as the go-to “why do they teach this crap?” example throughout the book, regardless of what period of lit is being discussed. But the polemics aside, there’s some nice straight-forward what-you-missed-in-lit-class discussions of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, and so forth, but Kantor also offers some very nice discussions of how to read these classics – how to deal with the language, how to approach their context, etc. which is excellent advice for anyone pursuing an interest in great literature, for academic purposes or just for reading great books and knowing them.

I’m in the middle of a major move, which means boxing up TONS of books. I’ll be spending more time boxing books in the next weeks rather than reading them. But once those boxes open, it will be back to the grind again. So, until next time…

A Big Book Roundup Part 3: Movies & Sports Edition

To continue with some quick book reviews/recs, here are a bunch related to various ends of the entertainment world:

Round Up The Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz – had this one sitting on my shelf for years and finally got around to reading about all the behind the scenes action in the making of Casablanca, one of the greatest American films ever made. Wonderfully researched & written, with pretty much everything you need to know. Her book on The Wizard Of Oz is next on my shelf and next on my list.

The Searchers: Making of an American Legend by Glen Frankel: A marvelous piece of scholarship not only about the making of the John Ford classic film, but also an exhaustive history of the true story it was based on, that of the Comanche abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836 Texas. Frankel does a great job with the detailed history of that event, and of her family taking her back against her will after she had married the chief & given birth to the chief who would make peace. The book goes from the history to the story written about it that led to the film, and how the film altered the actual story. This appealed to my interest in history, and also provided enough behind the scenes material about one of my favorite westerns as well.

A pair of gossipy entertainments that go together are Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra by George Jacobs, and Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin. Both books follow the same basic arc – an outsider (Jacobs was Sinatra’s valet, Bushkin was Carson’s business advisor, dubbed “Bombastic Bushkin” in monologue jokes) gets invited into the inner social circle of a huge celebrity and tags along for various adventures with other celebs, drinking, sex, affairs, you name it – often being dragged along and demanded to be part of things by either Sinatra or Carson as they struggle to have friends they can actually trust when they trust very few. And in the end, both men are frozen out for some single event that the celeb can never forgive. Both books have some interesting stories and gossip (Jacobs might win in this regard, some of the throwaway things he says about various celebs are sickly funny an eye opening if true. Who knew Yul Brynner had an affair with Sal Mineo? I’ll never watch The Ten Commandments the same way again), and both are quick reads, to be sure.

More somber and certainly more pious was The Closer by Mariano Rivera, Rivera’s autobio of his life in Panama and his journey to the Yankees, leading to his amazing career as the greatest closer relief pitcher of all time. While a lot of the book gets into the baseball details, the overriding tone is that of Rivera’s enormous religious faith (he originally intended to become a priest) and how his faith interacted with his career. Some of the stories he tells of some of the heartbreaking losses I remember from my own Yankee fandom are discussed in terms of Rivera’s views on God’s overall plans for him in ways that are, quite simply, more sincere, different and beautiful than any other baseball autobio I’ve plowed through. The storyline is very matter of fact, but the big takeaway for me was how the steadiness of the guy on the mound was very much a product of that amazingly strong faith.

No religion to be found in Betting On Myself By Steven Crist, Crist’s autobio of how he journeyed through a journalism career to buying the Daily Racing Form and transforming it into the more modern version it is today. He also discusses his own history of betting the tracks, starting out back in his Harvard Lampoon days going to the Suffolk Downs dog park with fellow Lampooner George Meyer, who’d go on to be one of the big wheels on The Simpsons and clearly the source of Santa’s Little Helper. Crist, the son of film critic Judith Crist, also wrote a book called Exotic Betting, where he delves into all of his methods of pick 6 and pick 4 combos at the track – a wonderfully helpful book to me in figuring out my own betting strategies whenever I handicap the horse races. Crist was one of the best pick 6 players out there (although I’m FAR too cheap to bet all over the board like he did). Betting On Myself focuses more on his myriad journey through the publishing business, and his ups and downs in doing so. Since his theories were so helpful to me improving my own performances at the track, I found his autobio very interesting.

Next Up: Some Art & History

A Big Book Roundup Part 2: The Mysteries Of The Universe Edition

From time to time, I enjoy listening to George Noori’s late night radio program, Coast To Coast AM, which he inherited from Art Bell many years ago. It’ll depend on who the guests are, and Noori has a cast of regulars who turn up on the program frequently. A lot of the show is devoted to UFOs and abductions and bigfoot and numerology and alternate nutritionists and the like, but every now and then he’ll have on someone like theoretical physicist Michio Kaku or people who have researched some historic oddities to the nth degree, and I’ll let it play into the wee hours as I fall asleep.

This was my introduction to Robert Lanza & his theories of Biocentrism when he or some other acolyte of these theories whose name escapes me turned up as a guest one night. I very much enjoyed listening to a pair of audiobooks by Lanza, Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness & The Illusion of Death (the “illusion of death” was the hook for me, after spending a lot of years reading all sorts of material on Buddhist/Hindu ideas on reincarnation and their relation to some concepts in theoretical physics), and The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality. Lanza’s theories can be boiled down to the idea that consciousness is an eternal force that has created our reality, as opposed to the other way around – a universe is created and life evolves, reaching sentient consciousness. While Lanza develops and defends his ideas by discussing ideas based on quantum theory and other scientific concepts, I found his entire approach to be very spiritual – without directly mentioning any specific religion, Lanza’s theories amalgamate numerous concepts and ideas from across major world religions on the nature of reality and our place within it as thinking beings. Whenever he talked about the eternal nature of a universal consciousness, I kept thinking about Charlton Heston coming down from the burning bush in The Ten Commandments and telling Zephora and Joshua how God was “the light of eternal mind.”

So if some off-the-charts genius cosmology professor and Moses are on the same page, who am I to argue?

In any case, it was all fascinating listening, prompting a lot of thought and a sense of wonder. I suppose there are two sides to his consciousness theories as related to “the illusion of death,” since Lanza’s theories very much align with Eastern reincarnation beliefs that our consciousness but not our persona will recycle throughout time (although Lanza goes into fascinating detail about how time itself is a human concept & may not actually exist as we think about it. I’ll have to work that into Phigg & Clyde at some point, I guess.)

Another frequent topic on Noori’s radio show explores theories around ancient civilizations and their technological achievements. Frank Joseph’s Ancient High Tech: The Astonishing Scientific Achievements of Early Civilizations leaves out alien theories and explores in wonderful detail the actual scientific achievements of ancient civilzations across the globe, from compelling evidence of engineering, architecture, use of electric batteries, naviagation, and so forth. While Joseph argues some ideas that are not widely accepted (to put it mildly) by scientific and historic consensus as stated by experts (although that world has not looked very good in recent times, eh?), most of his scholarship is factual history and discoveries sitting in various museums worldwide. Much like with Lanza, listening to this book got me thinking a lot and wondering a lot, so it did the trick. And since I’ve always loved the theory that the Great Pyramid is not a tomb but instead is actually an ancient version of a Tesla Tower (someone tell Moses), hearing Joseph’s extensive analysis and defense of this idea was very entertaining.

Finally there was Synchronicity, Science, and Soulmaking: Understanding Jungian Synchronicity Through Physics, Buddhism, and Philosophy (audiobook) by Victor Mansfield, the late Colgate U. professor of physics and astronomy who spent more time teaching concepts of Tibetan Buddhism, and this book on Jungian synchronicities and their relation to both Buddhist ideas and theoretical physics was an uneven but mostly interesting listen. Mansfield provides assorted anecdotes from his students describing synchronistic events from their own lives, while offering his own analysis of the concepts related to an interwoven collective consciousness with Middle-way Buddhist ideas and concepts from quantum mechanics. Lanza’s work focuses on very similar ideas, so grouping them together was a good way to get my mind in the right mode to work on the next Wagstaff book.

Deep stuff…. this must mean the next installment of book reviews will be about trivial nonsense, so stay tuned!

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